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Thinking Out Loud

Local Heroes

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 12, 2013

Some artists and writers become so closely identified with a particular patch that it is hard to think of them without evoking that spot, or even to imagine the particular locale without seeing it through their eyes.

New Mexico and Georgia O'Keefe are like that for me. Say the phrase "Sangre de Cristo mountains" and my first thought is of her paintings of that iconic range, though I have stood in wonder gazing at the actual mountains themselves many, many times.

Conversely, read a few lines from Wendell Berry and I am transported to the magical countryside of Kentucky about which he writes so beautifully. Such artists and writers as O'Keefe and Berry are known far beyond the regions they champion through their art, but there are others whose fame remains local or regional.

Alfred Wainwright's guidebooks for those who love to walk the paths of England's Lake District are beloved, but the audience is not exactly universal. Stay in any good bed and breakfast in Cumbria and you'll trip over a stack of his books. And it is hard to spend a summer holiday in Britain when there's not at least one BBC program on A. Wainwright. But most Americans will not be acquainted with the gorgeous, detailed pen drawings, maps and prose of this rather eccentric, if not to say profoundly odd, man who spent virtually every weekend of his adult life often alone, walking, mapping and chronicling the footpaths of a region about which he was obsessively passionate.

This summer I picked up a copy of Hunter Davies' wonderful volume, The Best of A. Wainwright, and was reminded of how it is a regional artist can become such a beloved figure; it is because they first love the region so much. There's a lesson there for all of us. When A. Wainwright, who died in 1991, wrote of "Haystacks" or "Great Gable" he wrote with the attentiveness of a lover who cannot get enough of his beloved. And those who also love the places of which he writes, find their own romance rekindled, and adore him for it.

As a Texan, one writer above all others has long occupied the place of local literary hero: John Graves. Graves died this summer at the age of 92, and reading of his death in the New York Times, sent me immediately to the bookshelf of our cottage where a ragged copy of his greatest book, Goodbye to a River holds court over lesser regional volumes. Since first reading this book, at the recommendation of my old friend Jimmy Johnson, long-time senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Waco, I have loved Graves' prose.

Though Graves tried his hand on the national literary scene, even living for awhile in New York City, he returned to Texas to help out with his family. There he discovered his true voice, writing naturally and with clarity, of a journey down the Brazos River from below Possum Kingdom Dam to the site of the next big reservoir coming to the river near the town of Whitney, Texas. It is an utterly unpretentious story of a young man, a small dog and a canoe, a rainy fall and a river on the verge of being forever tamed. The story of the daily trek is interspersed with historical vignettes and philosophical reflections.

It has been said that John Graves is the best-loved Texas writer for most Texans, and the Texas writer least likely known outside the state's borders. Probably true on both counts. Unless you're of a certain age and you've grown up with a canoe paddle in your hands, a fishing rod, shotgun and tent stowed away, and have known the magic of an intimate southwestern stream, you might not "get" Graves. But that is the point of every great regional artist. Their art is inseparable from the place because the art proceeds from a love for the place and cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from it.  And their art invites those who also love the place to remember, certainly, but also to go outside again and to listen and take a deep breath and attend as lovers do.

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